One of the most painful things about my stay in Israel was the complete and utter lack of … bacon. Of course, most people understand that the Jewish prohibition against eating bacon is part of a list of dietary restrictions that collectively determine when a food is “kosher,” or ritually clean for eating, according to the standards of religious law in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy in the Old Testament. Other victims of the rules of kosher include shellfish and cheeseburgers.
The laws contained in the Torah (literally, “Law,” including the first five books of the Bible) are not limited to just food, however. Other laws apply to how one dresses, personal cleanliness, rituals for worship, crime and punishment, and interpersonal relationships. These laws are responsible for many of the most visible aspects of modern-day Judaism, such as the use of the tefillin (more commonly known as phylacteries) while praying, ritual handwashing, beards and side-curls, and tassels on clothing.
Recently these laws have become a feature of the culture wars in America, being cited in discussions about same-sex marriage, women’s rights, and circumcision, among other things. There are two other important and related questions that I’ve encountered in discussions with skeptics and Christians. The first one is often asked by skeptics looking to challenge a Christian moral teaching: “Why are Christians selectively applying the rules in the Bible? After all, the Bible bans things like eating pork and shellfish, and mixing cloth types in clothing. Christians don’t obey these restrictions, so why make such a big deal by hypocritically complaining about violations of restrictions on various types of sex?” The second question is sometimes asked by Christians, whether they are pondering the first question or just thinking on their own: “Am I sinning by not following all of the Old Testament Law or, on the other hand, am I exempt from the Ten Commandments? Something in between?”
I can understand the concern about the hypocrisy… no one wants to be a hypocrite. In the case with these banned things and homosexuality, however, Christian interpretations aren’t chosen arbitrarily to be convenient for us. (In my own experience reading the Bible, I can’t say that I encounter convenient truths very often… it’s not something that really makes one comfortable.) Anyway, I say we don’t choose arbitrarily because there is actually a method Christians use to figure out what we’re to follow and what doesn’t apply.
Keep in mind that the laws in the Old Testament weren’t given to everyone to begin with, but were given to the Jews in the historical context of a theocratic nation.
Consequently, the laws such as the prohibition against eating pig and shellfish, not wearing garments of mixed cloth, etc, only ever applied within the nation of Israel. Some of these regulations were for maintaining good health habits, some were for maintaining social order, and some of them were to make the Jews “weird.” (This made it harder – from a cultural standpoint – to intermarry with the people around them – people who were busy worshiping idols, using human sacrifice, engaging in incest and cult prostitution, etc.) Mixed in with these laws were laws governing interpersonal relationships, including bans on adultery, homosexuality, incest, rape, bestiality, etc.
So what’s important and what’s not? Since the New Testament is the part of the Bible that delineates the teachings of Christianity, we follow a very simple, non-arbitrary rule: A command that occurs in the Old Testament and is repeated in the New Testament is binding for everyone. A command that occurs in the Old Testament and is not repeated in the New Testament no longer applies. The commands of the ritual law (things like eating pig and shellfish, wearing tassels on garments, and praying with phylacteries) were not reinforced in the New Testament. Things of a greater moral consequence (idol worship, sexual immorality, murder, etc) were reinforced and reiterated several times in the New Testament. Since the New Testament is the governing document (so to speak) of Christianity, that explains why we don’t make a big deal out of ritualistic cleanliness but do make a bigger deal about some issues, including sexuality.
There is another component to this discussion, however. Even though Christians take our moral commands from the New Testament, we do hold that the Old Testament is God’s word (though not originally given to non-Jews). We also believe that the Old Testament is still useful for moral instruction, and that applies to the passages regarding sexuality. So why don’t we interpret eating pig or shellfish as morally reprehensible, since both are called “abominations” in scripture? Let’s look at the word “abomination” (or let’s just say “disgusting”) that is used.
In English it comes out the same for each passage – eating shellfish and sexual sins are both “disgusting,” but even so, there are different senses of the word “disgusting,” even in English. Just think of the difference between saying “picking your nose is disgusting” and “incest is disgusting.” We clearly don’t mean that they are both immoral, even though we use the same word. But in Hebrew, we would actually use different words, just like the book of Leviticus does. We would say that picking one’s nose is “shaqqets,” which is just icky, like being disgusting in the sense that many people think eating sheep brains, lutefisk or, worse yet, cafeteria food, is disgusting. On the other hand, we would say that incest is “to’ebah” (pronounced “toe-AY-vah”), which carries the connotation of disgusting in the sense of being reprehensible, morally speaking. As it turns out, the Old Testament Law always uses “shaqqets” to describe food prohibitions, while it uses “to’ebah” to describe sex prohibitions. There are also much stronger penalties for sexual sin than for ritual violations, meaning even the Old Testament seems to place more importance on sexual morality than on dietary restrictions. Even if we limit our discussion only to the Old Testament, we still come to the same conclusion regarding sexuality as when we incorporate the New Testament.
To summarize, a simple way of knowing whether or not an Old Testament law applies to Christians today is to check the New Testament – the big commands are all repeated or expounded upon in the New Testament. The Old Testament (as a whole) is useful as a moral instructor for understanding the moral principles and reasoning of the New Testament.
Of course, there is much more that can be said about the wonderful ways the Old Testament (and yes, even the Law) can be used to deepen your spiritual walk. Right now, though, please excuse me… I’m off to eat a bacon cheezburger!